MERIDA, Mexico -- A man in a white tank top, black drawstring shorts and flip flops drags a beat-up bike from the front room of an abandoned house on a wide boulevard lined with mansions.
For 30 pesos, less than $3, the rusted, one-speed "Cherry"-brand bike is mine for the next two hours.
I pedal along the Paseo Montejo, passing pastel-colored mansions, once the homes of wealthy plantation owners, now the headquarters for banks, insurance companies and car dealerships.
A group of children plays a game of Twister on the sidewalk. Others join an impromptu art class, dipping their fingers into jars of paint set out on card tables in the street.
A girl cruises by in high-top pink tennis shoes with a matching pink tricycle. Then comes a mother and her two daughters on a white three-wheeler the size of a washing machine.
Along the "Bici-ruta" (bicycle route), three miles of city streets closed to auto traffic on Sunday morning, no one wears spandex. No one owns a fancy racing bike. No one bothers with a helmet.
Weekends are family time in Mexico, and no city seems to celebrate them with more gusto than the Yucatan's capital of Merida.
Free musical and folk-dance performances take place around town nearly every night, but the whole city, it seems, turns out for an all-day street carnival called "Merida en Domingo" -- Merida on Sunday.
The party gets a jump start on Saturday night with musical performances in several locations, then builds to a crescendo on Sunday with dancing in the Parque Santa Lucia and the region's largest Mayan handicraft market on the Plaza Grande, the site of the ancient Mayan city of T'ho.
It's all free, and as with any good party, everyone's invited. Some highlights:
Local dance groups perform, and craft and food vendors set up stalls, Saturday nights in a park at the top of the Paseo de Montejo. Named for the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo, who founded Merida in 1542, the boulevard is sometimes called Merida's "Champs-Elysees" because of its wealth of 19th-century buildings such as Palacio Canton, home to the Anthropology & History Museum.
I found a table on the patio of the Tala Bistro in the Hotel Casa San Angel, the former home of a well-known mathematician, now an antique-filled boutique inn. On the menu was a Yucatan specialty, Sopa de lima (lime soup), and fajitas made with hormone-free beef. Locals gathered around red plastic Coca-Cola tables for cold drinks made with rice milk and tacos filled with shaved pork cooked to order by the street vendors.
The concerts are free, and there are plenty of folding chairs, but arriving early is essential. It was standing-room only by the time the costumed dancers took to the stage at 9 p.m.
Corazon de la Merida
"In the Heart of Merida" is another Saturday-night celebration, this one on Calle 60, a narrow main drag, and the side streets surrounding Plaza Grande in the 470-year-old city's historic center. Towering above the shade trees is the 16th-century Cathedral de San Ildefonso, built by the Spaniards with stones from Mayan pyramids.
I watched a lone man sitting on the curb playing a saw as if it were a violin, then peeked in at a classical-guitar concert in the Teatro Peon Contreas, a hall that could be mistaken for a museum with its marble staircase and frescos by Italian artists.
Vendors came by with caramel apples and pink and yellow cotton candy on a stick. A clown kept the crowd entertained with a dance routine that called for the audience to mimic his and a partner's moves. "Dancing with the Stars" it was not, but still lots of fun.
Merida en Domingo
The all-day festivities begin at 8 a.m. when the streets along the Bici-ruta close to traffic, then continue through the afternoon and evening with musical, comedy and dance performances at various locations.
I was in awe of a woman in a tight, pink dress, red-sequined sunglasses and white sandals staying cool in the 90-degree heat while dancing with her partner for nearly an hour on a bandstand in the cozy Parque Santa Lucia, once a stagecoach stop, now the site of a weekly antiques and crafts market.
People-watching is best from the terrace of La Dulcera Colon, a century-old ice-cream parlor across from the Plaza Grande. The air smells of roasted corn, vanilla milkshakes and grilled pork. Women from the nearby Mayan villages stroll shaded walkways with handwoven blankets and scarves draped over their arms, hoping to convince tourists to lighten their loads.
Most afternoons folk dancers in crisp white shirts and colorful dresses take to the streets for traditional dances performed in village fiestas called vaquerias.
Linger long enough and you might get lucky as I did and see a troupe doing "La Danza de la Cabezade Cochino," the dance of the pig's head, a traditional ceremonial dance in which the head of a barbecued pig (made of plaster these days) is passed around on a platter balanced on the heads of the male dancers.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan. It's located between the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal, and makes a convenient base for visiting both. Nearest airports are in Merida and Cancun.
* Hotel Julamis, boutique B&B with eight rooms and a rooftop garden in a 200-year-old building halfway between the Paseo de Montejo and the historic center. Doubles, $40-$75 including breakfast. www.hoteljulamis.com.
* Hotel Casa San Angel, elegant antique-filled inn with restaurant on quiet square near the Paseo Montejo. Doubles starting at $108. www.hotelcasasanangel.com.
MORE INFORMATION / SAFETY:
Merida is celebrating its 470-year anniversary this year of its founding by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo. Check a schedule of upcoming cultural events and find tourist information at Yucatan Today, www.yucatantoday.com
Mexico remains under a U.S. State Department travel warning; however, Merida is not on any of the main drug trafficking routes, and so far has been spared from drug-related violence. Details at travel.state.gov.